Saturday, February 25, 2006

a boy in the bath

My son D. lives in the moment. I am trying to learn from him.

D. is 2, or, as he says, "at my next birthday I be three." Tonight he had a bath. This is a small victory in our house. For months now, mere mention of bathing has been enough to make him run screaming from the room.

Tonight, he willingly climbed into the bath, washed himself, played with his toys, his fears forgotten. I had to pull the plug to get him out and even then he didn't notice until the tub was empty, inquiring "Where did the water go?"

After we put his Spiderman pajamas on ("Grammy gave these to me") and brushed his teeth with his SpongeBob toothbrush (the influences of an older brother), he climbed into my lap for a story (poetry, actually, Garbage Delight by Dennis Lee).

I watched his face as he took in the pictures, completely absorbed. He belly-laughed at some of the silly-sounding words. And then he climbed into bed to read to himself.

D. can focus completely on whatever is right in front of him, whether pleasure or irritant.

My older son, S., is a dreamer and a worrier (at 7, he's a child who would lie awake worrying about cancer before he knew his mother had it). He finds it very hard to be in the moment, anticipating the next activity so much that the present goes by unnoticed. I am like that too.

Sometimes it has served me well, helping me to plan and anticipate problems before they arise.

But both S. and I need to learn how to enjoy what is happening right now and not lose sight of that in anticipation of the future.

My children are growing up so quickly. Every age is interesting, challenging and fun. They are so different from each other but both such beautiful, engaging and interesting kids. I need to stop rushing ahead in time so I can enjoy them more, savour each moment with them.

Especially now.

I have my first appointment with the oncologist on Monday, and then an appointment with a radiation oncologist a week after that. This is much sooner than I expected to hear. Good to move ahead but also a little frightening.

I am going to try and enjoy this week end, and every moment, to work very hard at not worrying about what the coming weeks will bring.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

moving forward. slowly.

Call it hubris.

One should never post to the internet how easy one's recovery has been from surgery when one does not really know what one is talking about. One definitely should not crow about it.

Within a day or two of my cathartic crying jag, I was on much more solid ground emotionally but finding the fallout from surgery a little harder to handle. There was more pain. A buildup of fluid at the site of the surgery that had to be drained. Twice. Scar tissue has developed under my arm and near my shoulder (my surgeon calls it a "web", looks more like rope, to me) which should go away over time but has greatly impeded mobility in my right arm.

Several people who've had surgery as adults have told me that this kind of back-sliding is normal. I did find it discouraging. Especially as I was trying to work last week, in a context that was particularly stressful (I'll write more on my reasons for this in a future post. Suffice it to say that this was not as insane as it sounds, since I have the best co-workers in the world and that they made sure I took care of myself when I appeared to be forgetting).

I do seem to be on the mend again.

I got my pathologist's report yesterday. My tumour is smaller than I had thought (4cm) and had spread to 4 of the 13 lymph nodes sampled. They also found another kind of cancer (ductal carcinoma in situ) in another part of my breast - but it does look like they got it all (the advantage of mastectomy over lumpectomy). The cancer was graded 3/3, which means that it is very agressive (my surgeon says that is to be expected, given my youth). So...good news and bad news, as they say, but generally speaking, things could be worse. My surgeon stages my cancer at a 2b (with stage 1 being small and with no nodes affected and 4 being cancer that has spread beyond the lymph nodes).

I am now on the waiting list to see an oncologist. Next step - chemotherapy.

I messed with my own head a bit last night by looking up the survival stats for those with my stage of breast cancer. I then re-read a wonderful article by Stephen Jay Gould on cancer statistics, called The Median isn't the Message ( ).

One thing the author writes about is the documented evidence that a positive attitude and belief in one's own survival contribute greatly to battling cancer succesfully.

I should be fine.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

the rollercoaster takes a downturn

It was bound to happen. I finally cried last night.

The English language is full of descriptive expressions that I have come to understand viscerally in the last couple of months. Heavy heart. Heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching. Wracked with sobs.

When the dam finally broke, I cried with my whole body, until my chest ached and my throat was raw.

I was crying for how awful this is - being "sick", disfigurement, fear of dying, the prospect of chemotherapy, anger and fear that I can't and won't be there for my children, losing my hair, early menopause, all the horrible side effects of cancer and its treatment, losing myself as a sexual being. And for how it's possible to feel loved and cared for and still be so utterly lonely.

It really was bound to happen at some point. And I guess it was good that it did.

Having cancer is really, really hard.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

it wasn't that bad

My father-in-law says that, during his cancer treatment, he had to ask his spouse to stop being so nice to him - he was finding it disconcerting. His wife is a lovely woman and they seem to get along just fine, but I do take his point.

If food equals love, I am very loved indeed. My fridge, freezer and cupboards are bulging with wonderful food (both healthy and decadent). Friends have brought me flowers, books and a host of wonderful presents. I have been overwhelmed by this outpouring of support.
And I'm enjoying every minute of it.

I wonder if it will all stop once I tell how this business of having a mastectomy is not that bad after all.

The hardest part was saying goodbye to my spouse in the waiting room. Or rather several goodbyes. Before the nurse made him leave.

From then on, I was very well taken care of by everyone at the hospital - doctors, nurses, orderlies, volunteers. The hospital staff did everything they could to keep me warm and comfortable (heated blankets!). The surgeon came to see me to answer any final questions. He told me that he knew it was going to go well.

The last thing I remember after walking into the OR and climbing up on the table is a brief moment of panic (a nurse was arranging some very scary looking surgical instruments) before the anesthetist started asking about my kids and I relaxed and drifted off.

I woke up in the recovery room. I was thirsty. And hungry. And in pain. Water, crackers and Demerol were administered in short order and I lay there for some hours, oblivious to the passage of time.

My surgeon came in to check on me at some point and delivered the news that the tumour in my breast had not affixed itself to my chest wall (good news in terms of cancer treatment and recovery from surgery, as it meant that Dr. M. did not need to cut into my chest muscles).

By 3:15, eight hours after arriving at the hospital, I was on my way home.

I never thought I'd say this, but I now understand why mastectomies are done as day surgery. I was in my own bed, able to see my kids. I felt safe and, well, 'at home'. I'm sure this contributed to my recovery.

A home care nurse came the night of my surgery (administered another lovely shot of Demerol), the next day and one last time yesterday to change my bandage. Since the first day, I have managed with Tylenol 2s for pain (and I'm no hero when it comes to pain management).

And here's the most surprising part. It doesn't even look that bad. One incision. A neat row of staples that will be removed in a week's time. That's the upside of imagining the worst. When I screwed up the courage to take a peek after surgery, I fully expected to see a bloody stump where my breast used to be. Instead, there was just a single narrow bandage that ran the breadth of my chest. And it's healing well.

Today I even went out for lunch. With a baggy jacket on. No prosthethis until the healing is a little further along.

Right now, the worst I have to contend with is swelling in the area where the lymph nodes were removed and in my upper arm. It can still be painful but even that is getting better with time, elevation and exercise.

My surgeon should call in the next day or two with my pathology report (grade, stage, and the results of tests for hormone receptivity). I assume that I will be meeting an oncologist shortly after that and in a few weeks time, chemotherapy will start. I've already lined up a friend who spent many years bald by choice, to shave my head before chemo does its worst.

When I admitted to struggling with letting people do all these things for me, a friend said, "We are grateful to you. When something like this happens, people feel powerless. Helping makes us feel less powerless." That helped a lot. People are doing for me and for themselves. That makes it easier to accept.

I really believe that if I am doing well, it's because of all the caregivers in my life, at the hospital, at home and in my community. There are moments when this all seems too awful for words. My arm hurts. I'm exhausted. And scared. But it helps immeasurably to know that I am not going through this alone.

This is why I am also grateful to the friend who opened a phone conversation with, "Are you listing to one side?" Her girlfriend was appalled but I couldn't stop laughing. That was a gift, too.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Groundhog Day

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. Thursday. The day of my surgery.

I'm a little freaked out.

But, I suppose, I'm as ready as I'll ever be.

I have been completely overwhelmed by the love and support people have shown to me since my diagnosis. It has helped more than I have been able to express. If it weren't for my family and my friends (and the compassion of a few complete strangers) I would not be able to face what lies ahead.

I really wish I didn't have cancer (and I still can't quite believe that I do) but it has served to remind me how fortunate I am.

When I've recovered enough to type again, I'll write a little more about what I've been feeling and some big thoughts I've been thinking.

Right now, I need to have one last glass of wine and go turn my room into a proper nest.